WEST JEFFERSON — The Ashe County Board of Commissioners met in regular session on Monday, June 7, in The Venue at the Ashe County Chamber of Commerce, due to scheduling conflicts at the original meeting place in the courthouse.
Chair Todd McNeill, Vice Chair William Sands and commissioners Chuck Olive, Jerry Powers and Jonathan Jordan were in attendance along with County Manager Adam Stumb, Clerk Ashley Honeycutt and Finance Officer Sandy Long.
The meeting included presentations from the Ashe County Museum of History, the Ashe Medication Assistance Program, Tax Administration, Building Inspectors, County Management and the Ashe County Board of Education.
Gary Poe with the Museum of History presented the board with the opening of their newest exhibit, a Native American exhibit. The exhibit includes a handmade mask from the ground, hundred-year-old corn bread, arrowheads and more. Poe invited the board and the community to come out to the museum Friday, June 11, at 5:30 p.m. to celebrate the new exhibit.
Dianne Harless with the Ashe Medication Assistance Program then gave an overview of the program to the commissioners. This program allows those in need of medication cost assistance to become eligible for free medication. The medications are ordered directly from drug companies and are dispensed from local pharmacies with a service charge per prescription In the past year, the program has provided around $2.5 million worth of medication to their patients. They do not provide pain medicine, but they do provide heart medication, insulin and more. When applying for the program, you will need your Social Security statement, a check or awards benefit letter, a copy of your most recent month’s pay stub, the top sheet from your most recent IRS 1040 from and Schedule C and your current medications or prescriptions. No hand-written notes will be accepted. The Ashe Medication Assistance Program is located at 225 Court Street in Jefferson. Harless encourages community members to call (336) 846-6001 or (336) 846-6002 for more information.
Tax Administrator Chris Lambert then asked the board for approval of the collection of Lansing and Jefferson’s property tax. The commissioners approved the request.
Next up in presentations was building inspector Jonathan Stansberry, discussing the current fees for inspections. With inspections being stretched out across the county, Powers suggested that building inspectors add additional fees for additional trips, which the board later adopted.
Stumb discussed county property leases which are now due for renewal, mainly focusing on the businesses and programs which occupy Family Central.
“The Cosmetology program at Wilkes Community College may move out and onto another building, but we do have others interested in the space if it falls out,” said Stumb in discussion of profit and leasing concerns. The board further spoke on the different costs for leasers as some do not utilize the given utilities as much as others, such as water and electricity. The board approved the renewals.
Dr. Eisa Cox along with the Ashe County Board of Education entered the meeting and sought out a commitment from the commissioners to provide $61.3 million, minus a $15 million grant from the BOE, for the new middle school project. The middle school itself will be 164,771 square feet along with all-inclusive athletic fields. Cox said the project itself is still in design but will hopefully have a starting date in August.
Commissioners raised questions on the different costs of the school and current building supplies and finances.
“Our local government financing is good, but prices have only increased every year, even with COVID-19 for supply and cost per square foot,” said Powers.
McNeill said he’d like to chip away at anything they can to lower the cost of the project, hoping both the boards of commissioners and the education can create a joint effort in funding.
In response to the current prices for supplies and materials, Stumb said that prices have never been this high, but interest has never been this low. He said that even with the board of education’s $15 million grant, the project is going to be costly for the county, but he hopes it can go smoothly for everyone.
“We’ve gone with the most economical version of the school so far,” said Cox. In the initial designs, the building was too small, as the state requires a one to 29 teacher to student ratio. In previous years, the middle school has only been occupied by seventh and eighth graders, but with the addition of sixth grade, the Board of Education has seen setbacks in both design and starting times.
“As of now, we’re hoping to see a completion date around September of 2024,” said Construction Manager at Risk Mike Kesterson. “It’s going to be a waiting game as we begin to set a start date along with working around this upcoming winter.”
Cox said she and the Board of Education are fully behind Kesterson and his team.
“I trust that Vannoy’s know what they’re doing as they’ve been doing this for a long, long time,” Cox said.
In addition to the middle school funding, Cox spoke on the needs for the current schools such as technology, new windows and HVAC systems for the elementary school gyms. It is her hope that they can use their ESSER funds, an established part of the Education Stabilization Fund in the CARES Act which sub-grant local education systems in response to the novel Coronavirus, for these projects rather than coming to the county for future funding.
“Technology itself is a tool and it’s necessary for these things to happen, but we hope to get a roll on those aside from the middle school project,” said Dr. Cox.
Jones pleaded for the commissioners to commit to the funding as this new building is a must for the county and the students. Jones said that she believes the current middle school will soon be condemned by inspectors as it has begun to wear and tear over the many years it has been occupied.
In response to her plea, Jordan asked the Board of Education why aspects of the project are now shifting to require more funds.
“There has been a 10 to 15 percent increase in cost supplies in the past two years alone,” said Kesterson. “We wish we could control it, but unfortunately we can’t.”
After a long discussion and working out the planning, Olive made a motion to commit to the funding along with the Board of Education. Sands made a second to the motion and the board voted to commit and approve the $61.3 million project.